NK News (file) | A young woman directs traffic in Pyongyang, May 2010
“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News series featuring interviews with North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.
Readers may submit their questions for defectors by emailing [email protected] and including their first name and city of residence.
Today’s question is about driving and car culture in North Korea.
Hyun-seung Lee — who comes from an elite North Korean family and defected in 2014 — spoke with NK News about the yearlong driver training program, private car ownership and why there are so few female drivers in the country.
Lee now resides in the U.S., where he works as a director for One Korea Network and a fellow of North Korean studies at the Global Peace Foundation. He also runs the Pyonghattan YouTube channel with his sister.
NK News: What’s the process for getting a driver’s license in the DPRK?
Lee: There are two paths to attaining a driver’s license in North Korea.
Most drivers get their license after a yearlong course at a military-run driver’s training center (운전수 양성소). Military jobs as a driver are coveted, as they are regarded as much more comfortable than life as an ordinary soldier. For this reason, people utilize bribes and political connections, among other methods, to get such jobs.
Once selected as a military driver, one attends driver’s education run by each army corps (군단), studying subjects such as basic methods of driving, road rules, managing traffic, road signs and markers, and vehicle repairs. Usually, these training centers are equipped with Russia and China-manufactured military vehicles, as well as the North Korean Sungri-58 trucks, which drivers-in-training use to learn their trade.
The biggest problem with these driver’s training centers is that they are assigned a paltry amount of fuel. The result is most absurd: Many military drivers go through the entire year with virtually no practical driving experience. A friend of mine who took this course was only able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle twice. It is not until a driver has finished the course and been assigned to the army that they can acquire actual driving experience.
The other route to getting a license is through a one-year course for civilians at a driver’s training ground run by each province. At the end of this is a test, which participants must pass to get their driver’s license.
It is by no means easy to get into one of these training centers. The party committees of certain companies screen and recommend candidates from pools of applicants, and once selected, students live a communal life in the dormitory of their training center. These centers might have around five vehicles for several dozen students to practice with during their one-year course.
The curriculum consists of road rules, vehicle operation and driving practice. By design, the class mandates driving practice along the center’s course once a week, and long-distance practice once every few months. But again, due to fuel shortages, much of this practical training is substituted with driving theory.
The final exam contains sections on politics (which has nothing to do with driving but is still mandatory), road rules, car anatomy and driving theory. Test takers who fail just one of these subjects must wait a year until the next test to try again.
Students at the army driving training centers must also take a test at the end, and while most pass, those who fail may in some cases be redeployed as an ordinary soldier. The Ministry of People’s Security (인민보안성), that is the police, issue normal licenses, while the Ministry of Armed Forces (인민무력부) issues military licenses.
There’s technically one other method of obtaining a drivers’ license — to bribe the department of the Ministry of People’s Security that issues them. Those who learned to drive on their own might take this route, allowing them to skip the irksome one-year process at a training center.
Drivers have to always keep their vehicles clean. If a car is not properly washed, then a police officer might pull the driver over, and then you will be reported to your workplace and punished with a fine or demerit points. A driver caught driving under the influence can also have their license revoked. If someone’s negligence leads to loss of life in an accident, then that person will lose their license permanently, and they will have to serve a one- to three-year prison sentence.
However, as usual, a bribe can easily get one out of trouble for driving drunk — even if you kill someone.
NK News: Who is allowed to drive in North Korea? Do you need good status in the DPRK’s social classification system (songbun) to be a driver?
Lee: There are estimated to be roughly 450,000 cars in North Korea, while the total number of drivers and license holders is estimated to be around 1 million, with over 90% of these men.
In North Korea, drivers are categorized as manual laborers and thus you don’t necessarily need good songbun, or caste, to get a license and become a driver. However, authorities will only assign drivers to institutions such as the cabinet, government ministries and central party organizations after investigating their family rank.
There are no laws forbidding women from driving in North Korea. I think it is rather social conditions that foster the absence of female drivers. For one, driving is viewed as a technical profession that is the purview of men. The state does not incentivize women to learn to drive, and as a result, practically none apply to civilian or military driving training centers.
Some of the army’s female units, primarily the women’s anti-aircraft artillery unit, will get women to drive their artillery trucks. On top of that there are the cases of female actors, singers and athletes who have received personal cars as gifts from the leaders, as well as repatriated Korean women from Japan who drive their own cars.
NK News: Some South Korean reports have claimed that North Korea has legalized private car ownership. Do you have insights on this?
Lee: Article 59 of the North Korean civil code states that “citizens can own various objects required for their houses and family life including household appliances, cultural goods, as well as other daily items and cars.” This makes it seem like private car ownership is possible in North Korea, but here we must recognize an enormous obstacle.
The average monthly salary in North Korea is 4,000 won, which is roughly 50 cents. The highest official positions come with a monthly salary of no more than $1.
In North Korea, land, means of production, buildings, and houses are all state-owned. The Hwiparam and Cuckoo models from North Korea’s Pyonghwa Motors each come with a price tag of over $10,000. Even high-ranking bureaucrats would need to save all their official salaries for over 833 years to purchase one of these cars.
The DPRK is a place where everything is owned by the state, and for that reason, ordinary people can only dream of inheritance or gifted property. The conditions to accumulate the wealth needed to buy a car still do not exist for those born in the country.
NK News: Many of North Korea’s roads are decrepit, littered with potholes and cracks in the concrete, and this can make for a very bumpy driving experience. How do drivers deal with this?
Lee: Other than the downtown streets of relatively large cities, main highways and roads set aside for special use by Kim Jong Un and his associates, North Korean roads are unpaved dirt. North Korea lacks the financial resources for proper maintenance of these roads, nor can it afford to pave them. North Korean drivers are simply acclimated to driving on these bumpy dirt roads. Some North Koreans even joke that driving on China’s well-paved highways puts them to sleep.
In the summer of 2014, I drove a Chinese business partner from Pyongyang to Wonsan. The highway is a decent road by North Korean standards, but still requires one to spend 2.5 hours lurching along a bumpy concrete surface. My Chinese business partner quipped: “North Korea’s leaders should work on fixing up the country’s roads before thinking about building more water parks and ski resorts. If the roads are well-kept, then logistics will be smoother and tourism will naturally benefit.” He suggested we take a plane on our next trip to Wonsan.
NK News: North Korean vehicles bear a variety of different colored license plates. What do the colors mean, and how does the number plate system work?
North Korea has several different types of license plates, indicating which unit a car belongs to.
High-ranking party and military cadres have black plates starting with 7.27 for July 27, 1953, the date of North Korea’s supposed victory in the Korean War. In the past, the plates bore 2.16 for Kim Jong Il’s birthday of Feb. 16. Excluding restricted military areas, these cars can go along any roads in North Korea and whiz by checkpoints without any issues. These plates go to Workers’ Party of Korea officials with the rank of vice department head and above, generals in the Ministry of Armed Forces, commanders and political commissars of each army corps and those who have received special recognition from Kim Jong Un.
Red star number plates are used by those in Kim Jong Un’s secretariat, as well as foreign leaders who are guests of the North Korean government. These cars can also pass all checkpoints with ease.
Green number plates starting with the word “foreign” (외) are for foreign embassy staff residing in North Korea. The U.N. and international organizations also use these green plates, which were blue in the past.
Yellow plates starting with “foreign” (외) are used for other foreigners residing in the country.
Some North Koreans own yellow license plates beginning with the name of their city — like Pyongyang or Chongjin. These are for private cars that Kim Jong Un has gifted to artists, athletes, scientists, as well as by zainichi Koreans from Japan and members of North Korea’s ethnic Chinese community who are allowed private cars.
Black license plates are for military vehicles.
Red license plates starting with “foreign” (외) are for foreign businesspeople, mostly Chinese, who reside in North Korea.
White license plates starting with the name of one’s region (province/city) are normal, civilian license plates. [Editor’s note: These plates were reportedly changed from white to blue in 2017.]
Alek Sigley is a PhD student at Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is writing a dissertation on North Korea. From 2018-2019 he studied for a master's degree in contemporary North Korean fiction at Kim Il Sung University's College of Literature. He speaks Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter @AlekSigley.